Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thinking too far ahead

Having a real problem over the past month or so keeping my head in this year.  This is a pretty common failing at this point of the year, especially when doing year long classes.  You are at the 3/4 mark and probably through 7/8 of the curriculum because of leaving time to review before EOCs.  So I guess it is natural to do so, and I definitely have started to think a lot about next year.

Part of it is that I teach at an amazing school with ridiculously supportive administration.  We were shortly after Christmas break to list a few wishes for next year, and everyone was encouraged to come up with a "dream" course or as the internet might have it now, a stretch goal.

I listed two, figuring there was no way that they would really get considered.

I was wrong though and so next year I will likely be teaching a high school level Intro to Organic and Biochemistry course.  First off, I think this fits in well with our school, we have a lot of kids who have the desire to go into medicine, biology and chemical engineering.  That being the case, since Organic is a classic weedout course, this will only help our students.

Plus, it will be a heck of a lot of fun to teach, I'm looking forward to a lot of labs and some cool discussions about molecules that affect their daily lives.  But then I started looking around for some others teaching such a class and there aren't a ton.  I saw Adrian Dingle's page for his Organic class and it was pretty intimidating (in a good way, as most of his stuff is) and it really hit me how much work I have to do to pull this off.

Oh, and I'm teaching AP Chemistry next year after a year without it and brand new standards next year....

I honestly just want to start prepping videos and planning for next year right now, but I only have 12 or so more class sessions with my APES class before their AP test, about the same for Biology before their EOC....

Good thing I don't have hair to begin with.

Don't get me wrong, it is a good anxiousness, the feeling of wanting to do your best, to be the best, for some of the best kids ever.  But it is still daunting.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Facts matter too...

This is going to go against the normal grain of my flipped class, multiple retake, critical thinking teacher persona, but I make no real apology for it.

Facts do matter....

As with anything else in education, politics, religion, whatever, we set ourselves up for failure when we make false dichotomies.  The one that irks me every time I see it in education circles is the idea that facts don't matter because people can just look them up.  That all that matters is critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills don't happen in a vacuum, your ability to think critically is often predicated on knowledge that you have already, facts one might say.

My ability to critically consider complex issues and do things like analyze the social norms of 19th Century America and relate those to modern political trends depends a lot on what I already know.  Yes, I could look things up and do research about them, but my ability to do research and even to "just use Google" as a lot of educators tout now depends a lot on what I already know about those things.

I'm not talking about memorization of trivia, or a bunch of random facts, but we dilute critical thinking skills when we minimize knowing things.  I think that each of us knows this intuitively, but it doesn't seem to fit our paradigm of higher order thinking skills and quadrant 4 and the upper part of Bloom's taxonomy above all.

I have a 2nd grader at home who is interested in science and as with a lot of 2nd graders has a lot of very intriguing and interesting questions.  These questions don't come out of the blue, they come as he learns things, and sometimes that comes from repetition and remembering things.  He knows a ridiculous amount of things about say, the human body, from watching a ton of BrainPop videos over and over and over.  Some would argue that he just knows facts and trivia, but it is the knowledge of those facts that leads him into the more complex thought that we are shooting for.

Knowing facts isn't the enemy of critical thinking, it has the ability to make critical thinking that much deeper, to make the connections faster and to have more ways to make those connections.

Daniel Willingham talks about this very coherently in his book Why Kids Don't Like School, which is a great read by the way.

Thinking critically is about making connections.  If there are few points of reference, only a few connections can be made.  If there are a lot of points of reference, there are a lot more nodes to connect together.

I will grant you that I am biased as a science teacher.  I get that we want data analysis to be a big part of things, but if we think that is it, we are foolish.  I suffered a lot in my research group in college because as an undergraduate, I didn't know as much about organics as my graduate peers.  That meant that my contributions in meetings and to the overall team effort was lacking.

Please don't misconstrue what I'm saying, I agree, critical thinking is tops.  I never count a student wrong for not doing things my way and I encourage them to analyze every situation.  But there are facts that need to be known as well, models that need to be there in order to understand the deeper stage of models.  If we continue to belittle content, then reading a chart for a multiple choice answer becomes the extent of what we can do.  A researcher doesn't just critically analyze her data, she analyzes it and holds it up to paradigms and models that she already knows to see if it fits or breaks those.

But if you don't know any paradigms or models in the first place, chart reading will only get you so far...